'I am a Greek person, but an Italian artist' Jannis Kounellis has repeatedly asserted. Born in Piraeus in 1936 Kounellis' childhood in this ancient Mediterranean port was ruptured by the many years of war and conflict that descended upon Greece during and after the Second World War. His unique and powerfully resonant art - a kind of timeless poetic realism made up of fragments and the fundamental elements of life (earth, air, fire water, etc.) - speaks similarly of the rupture of civilisation, of modern man's distance from the Ancients and of a hope for the future. 'I am against the world of Andy Warhol and of the epigoni of today' Kounellis once explained. 'I want to restore the climate experienced by the Cubists. I am against the condition of paralyzation to which the post war has reduced us; by contrast I search among the fragments (emotional and formal) for the scatterings of history. I search dramatically for unity, although it is unattainable, although it is Utopian, although it is impossible and for all these reasons dramatic. I am against the aesthetics of catastrophe; I am in favour of happiness; I search for the world of which our vigorous and arrogant 9th century forebears left us examples of revolutionary form and content.' (Jannis Kounellis cited in G. Moure (ed.), Jannis Kounellis Works, Writings, 1958-2000, Barcelona 2001)
Moving to Rome at the age of twenty, Kounellis thereafter refused to speak Greek and immersed himself in the cultural heritage of Italy. While Greece had been the birthplace of Western civilisation, it was its prodigy, Ancient Rome, that ultimately had been responsible for bestowing this culture on Europe while the vestiges of the ancient Greek civilisation faded away towards the East. Amidst the Eternal City's unique blend of ancient, Renaissance and modern, Kounellis found and picked up the continuous golden thread of Mediterranean culture that led through time from the land of his forefathers right up to the present day. A painter, with a poetic and painterly sensibility to all he saw, Kounellis also found in Rome and the work of Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, and that of his close friend Pino Pascali, a way to navigate through the infinite and relative dimensions of space, material and time. It was 'not only the works of Burri and Fontana that were crucial' for him, Kounellis recalled, 'but also those of many other artists of this generation who...found in material a path of research.' (Jannis Kounellis, quoted in Ibid., p.175)
From the very beginning Kounellis announced his intentions of painting 'materially' by using the tautology of real elements in the real world to express a hidden poetry at the heart of existence. Strongly aware of what he saw as the twin parameters of modernism - the Utopian idealism of painters like Malevich and the ironic deconstructive critique of Dada - Kounellis's first show at the La Tartaruga Galllery in 1960 boldly announced a new 'beginning'. He opened both his 'material research' and his professional career with his word and 'alphabet' paintings - a series of canvases onto which a mysterious or unknown language of signs, letters, numbers and symbols had been stencilled or printed. These extraordinary works, moving beyond the purely painterly logic of Johns and Rauschenberg's number and alphabet pictures for example, were followed by a series of tautological and mimetic canvas roses sewn onto bare canvases. At this point Kounellis briefly halted, taking a meditative break from painting in 1965 fearing he had developed a 'style'. 'There is no style', he later asserted. 'What we must try to achieve today is the unity between art and life. The history of Pop art and many other forms of painting removes this unity. Like all industrial and technological things, they place you in a state of detachment from what you're doing.' (Interview with Marisa Volpi Marcatrè Rome, May 1968.) Rooting his art in the timeless and elemental materials of life Kounellis began working in a way that ran directly counter to the synthetic shallowness and transitory 'nowness' of the American Pop aesthetic. In 1966 he began to paint again by literally binding art and life together, incorporating real and often living elements into his painting. Placing a live parrot perched against a canvas or a series of live birds in cages against another, Kounellis drew on the metaphysical tradition in Italian art of highlighting an isolated element or fragment as a way of asserting the innate mystery in the overt and manifest reality of life. In so openly demonstrating the apparent strangeness of the fundamental nature of reality Kounellis was also demonstrating how divorced from this reality modern civilisation had grown.
Soon, the individual and often fragmented elements of life Kounellis presented became entirely divorced from their canvas supports as the artist's painterly aesthetic began to embrace an entire environment. Charcoal, cacti, coffee, (with its powerful aroma and, for Kounellis, its evocative memories of the port of Piraeus), large burlap sacks in homage to Burri, and vast swathes of cotton, became the material vocabulary of a new poetic language in which he spoke with basic elements to the unchanging nature of man's perceptual senses. Permeating the viewer's space, stimulating all the five (or six) senses rather than just the visual, Kounellis' work destroyed the boundaries between art and life. Perhaps the most famous example of this was when in 1969, he filled the Galleria L'Attico in Rome with twelve live horses. Transforming the gallery space from a sacred and pristine arena of aspiration and pretension into a stable filled with the vital stench and undeniable physicality of living material energy, Kounellis brought home in the strongest possible way the dislocation of modern culture from an Arcadian ideal. Conjuring an image of the mythical Augean stables, not only did this work articulate the rift between the ideal and the real, the material and the ephemeral, the sacred and profane, but also and perhaps most of all, between the present and the past.
Kounellis' profoundly material aesthetic inevitably prompted his work to be seen as part of the arte povera movement of the late 1960s - a group branding that the artist has never been entirely happy with. As the addition of fire and smoke to his vocabulary of elemental materials illustrates, there is a deeply mystical sense of both the transience of life and of the essentially transcendental nature of human existence that often borders on the alchemical permeating much of his work. Infused by a distinctly poetic sensibility, his broken fragments of classical busts, doors and windows filled with stones, flame-filled beds and ghostly smoke-burned traces, weave a tale of mankind as if it were a lost tribe wandering in the ruins of a former golden age. Against his archaic and mysteriously lyrical manipulation of material, human life is expressed as a poetic journey of the soul. Kounellis has said that he has always cherished 'those Greek mothers who, rather than bringing up their children to stay at their sides, prepared them to leave home', adding the proviso that 'you have to set out in order to return because if you don't return it means you have lost your bearings, and our culture does not allow this.' (cited in G. Moure, op cit, p. 9).
In the same way, Kounellis' art sings an odyssey that is a trail of associations. It is a trail where ancient fragments speak of both dislocation and of one-time union, where the smell of materials prompts memories rooted in childhood and the flame of fire or its smoky traces speak of both the vitality and the transience of life. Overriding this poetic sense of longing for the shores of an unknown past however, the overt, ever-present and persistent factuality of his materials celebrates the richness and energy of the present, expressing the artist's fundamental joy in his work and an undeniable optimism about the potential of the future.
'I want the return of poetry by all means available: through practice, observation, solitude, through language, image and insurrection.' (cited in exh. cat., Jannis Kounellis, J. F. Costopoulos Foundation, Athens, 1994. p. 1)
THE PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE COLLECTOR
Untitled is a large and important example from the rare group of Kounellis' first paintings that the artist made in Rome in the early 1960s. These paintings, which incorporate a seemingly arbitrary and autonomous assemblage of letters, words, numbers and signs are known as the artist's 'alphabet paintings' and were made by Kounellis for his first one-man show held at the Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome in 1960.
With hindsight it seems both fitting and somewhat prophetic that Kounellis should have announced both his arrival as an artist and the beginning of his artistic journey with such primary elements as those of his 'alphabet pictures'. Using the most basic components of language, (letters, numbers, and simple signs) broken down into their constituent parts and then seemingly reassembled on the canvas as autonomous elements composed according to a new, complex and seemingly unintelligible order, Kounellis was both deconstructing the conventions of language and announcing a new poetry. In choosing to present such simple, universally recognisable, but also dry and emotionless elements as letters or numbers as the components of his painting, Kounellis was evidently reacting against the prevailing tendencies of Abstract Expressionism and the informel where the action, emotion, material, touch and will of the artist is inextricably interwoven with medium and form.
From the outset, in these 'alphabet paintings' it was almost as if Kounellis was attempting to teach of a new way, an alternate direction to that offered at that time by either Pop Art or the Informel. Taking his cue from words that he found on advertising signs in the real world, word's such as 'Olio', 'Paint' and 'Tabacchi', Kounellis had attempted in his very earliest paintings to reintegrate these graphic and literary elements of real life into his painting. In doing so he was echoing the attempt to integrate art and life taken by Americans like Johns and Rauschenberg whose work he had come to know through his friendship with Pino Pascali, though he soon became disenchanted with the immersion of this direction into the 'style' and stasis of Pop Art. 'There is no style', Kounellis firmly asserted, 'What we must try to achieve today is the unity between art and life. The history of Pop art and many other forms of painting removes this unity. Like all industrial and technological things, they place you in a state of detachment from what you're doing' (Interview with Marisa Volpi Marcatrè Rome, May 1968).
The 'alphabet paintings' that Kounellis made after these first 'word' paintings, were pointers to a new direction. They were attempts to go beyond painting itself. As Kounellis remembered, 'They were not pictures as such, all the canvases derived from the measurements of the house in which I lived. They referred to the wall. In fact I used to stretch the canvas or the sheet, right up to the limits of the corners of the wall, the painting ended there... It was like taking off a fresco, since the canvases or sheets had the form and breadth of the walls of the room... The letters or painted signs, they came however, from forms which I prepared out of hard cardboard. They were printed, not calligraphic but structural.' (Jannis Kounellis cited in S. Bann Jannis Kounellis, London, 2003, p. 71).
Similarly, the simple recognisable symbols in these works are entirely self-referential and autonomous non-painterly elements that, belying perhaps a certain rhythm, exist independently from the canvas. With their forms rendered through the impersonal and regularised order of a stencil, they betray nothing of the painterly touch or feeling of the artist's hand, nor are they appropriated images from the language of advertising. They are the fragmented building blocks of an undisclosed language, one that, they suggest, exists elsewhere. Perhaps also, these paintings suggest, they are the seeds of a new poetry, for, it is in this respect that they anticipate much of the future direction of Kounellis' art. As Germano Celant has written, in these works, 'language as autonomous entity able to express itself and expose its own origins is fragmented in order to reveal its basic structure, the alphabet. The letters of which it is composed become signs referring to a linguistic world which expresses itself through its own origins and its own signals. Seeing them and reading them thus becomes a neutral act of verification, revealing a tension in Kounellis's works which questions and scrutinizes public and universal linguistic structure. Here we have a syntax spelled out, almost in an explicit and violent way, that manifests itself on large pages where letters, signals and numbers occupy a space in which they present themselves tautologically.' (G. Celant cited in exh. cat., Arte Povera, Castello di Rivoli, Turin, 2001 p. 162).
As if to emphasise the inherent artifice of language, both pictorial and literal, Kounellis combined these works with a memorable performance that took place in his studio in Rome in 1960. Anticipating his later integration of works on canvas with living elements of 'reality' such as birds in cages, parrots on perches, candles or naked flames as well as with the performance of dance and music, Kounellis' 1960 performance with these paintings attempted to illustrate a similar integration of the elements of the painting with the space and arena of the real world. Dressing himself in an elaborate costume emulating that worn by Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, Kounellis wrapped himself in a painted sheet also adorned with letters, numbers and signs and, as he later recalled, 'sang his pictures'. Kounellis' adoption of the costume worn by Ball suggests that he was aware of Ball's own work with language at the Cabaret Voltaire, and his attempts with the break-up of language into pure sound, to reveal what he famously described as 'the inner alchemy of the word'. Certainly Ball's deconstructive approach to language is echoed in Kounellis's 'alphabet paintings' with their conscious disruption of all sense of coherent meaning.
At the same time, however, it is possible that this apparent incoherence is not as originless as it may seem. With its arrows, cross-marks, numbers and dotted lines, the elements of a painting like Untitled do form together to suggest some kind of progression, a mysterious sequence or equation - one that hints perhaps at an 'inner alchemy'. This 'hermetic and mysterious writing', as Kounellis has called it, creates 'rhythms' he insists, 'since the space is always rhythmic'. (cited in S. Bann, op. cit., p. 71) And, although Kounellis himself is always keen to deny any Greek influence in his work, often insisting after his move to Rome in 1956 that 'I am a Greek person but an Italian artist', it has been remarked that the forms of some of his alphabet paintings recall the seemingly arbitrary sequence of stenciled stamp marks that appear on shipping crates during their progress from harbour to harbour and ship to shore. With their arrows and direction lines and arbitrary sequence of letters and numbers they certainly echo the kind of mysterious language of progression, direction, motion and travel - a fragmented language of signs and numbers speaking of an outer world that these stamps and marks of the shipping trade conjure in the imagination. This is a language of fragmentary signs and symbols that Kounellis, who grew up in the Greek port of Piraeus, would have seen on a daily basis, a language from an outer world that penetrated the small town of his childhood and inevitably spoke of a wider realm of existence. Whether such symbols consciously or unconsciously prompted the rhythmic structure of his 'alphabet' paintings will perhaps never be known, but it is, nevertheless, the same sense of a wider language of real things existing beyond the shores of the artificial realm of painting that these paintings evoke.
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